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Royce O’Neale: Ultimate Glue Guy

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O’Neale’s unselfish play and defensive versatility keep Utah’s engine humming

NBA: Boston Celtics at Utah Jazz Russell Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

3-and-D wings. One of the rarest and most sought after player archetypes in the NBA. Typically, these players are low-usage 3-point specialists on offense, and serve as on-ball lockdown defenders or off-ball disruptors on the other side of the ball. These players are often tasked with guarding the most dangerous offensive player on the opposing team.

Royce O’Neale fits that description to a T. He’s taken that role and stretched it to aggressively exaggerated extremes for this Utah Jazz team.

Pictured below is a breakdown of O’Neale’s offensive and defensive profiles from craftednba. The chart on the left shows his offensive possessions by play type (hello, 3-point specialist). The chart on the right shows how often he defends each position (hello, versatility).

O’Neale’s offensive profile and defensive versatility from craftednba.com

O’Neale’s utility on the defensive side of the ball is not only by far the best on the team - his adaptability on that end of the floor rates him as one of the most versatile defenders in the league today. Per crafted nba, his “versatility” rating is 76 (0-100 scale), comparable with players like Robert Covington (71), Draymond Green (75), and Mikal Bridges (77).

It’s one thing to be tasked with guarding four different positions regularly. It’s another thing to grab that assignment and spike it into the ground like Gronk at the Super Bowl.

O’Neale currently ranks in the top 20 in a number of advanced metrics, including Defensive Win Shares (10th, 3rd among non-bigs behind only LeBron and Giannis), Box Score RAPTOR (T-11th, T-2nd among non-bigs, minimum 600 minutes played), Defensive Box Plus-Minus (17th, T-7th among non-bigs), and Defensive Real Plus-Minus (20th overall, 9th among wings). And he’s done all of this without accumulating many counting stats on the defensive end (such as steals and blocks).

Without steals and blocks, how is Royce grading out so well in these areas? Take a look at his field goal differential numbers below, and that should give you some idea. (Note: FG differential or “diff%” is an estimate of a defender’s impact on a shot attempt. Negative numbers are better here.)

DOMINANCE

O’Neale is posting negative field goal differentials in every. single. category. It doesn’t matter where on the court O’Neale is guarding the shooter, he’s going to disrupt the shot attempt.

Although he’s listed as a SF/PF, he clocks in at just 6’4” (6’9” wingspan) and 226 pounds. In forward matchups he’s at a disadvantage of either a few inches or 10-20 pounds (or both!), and in guard matchups he’s usually at a quickness disadvantage compared to his opponent.

O’Neale makes up for it with strength, lightning-quick and active hands, excellent footwork, and an aptitude for navigating around screens. He also has fantastic recovery speed, contests vertically when protecting the rim, and closes out well on shooters.

Here, O’Neale plays tight, hounding defense on Jimmy Butler in the corner. Kelly Olynyk sets a ball screen, and Joe Ingles switches. When Olynyk starts rolling to the rim, O’Neale seems like he’s out of the play... but he absorbs the contact from the screen, recovers quickly to narrow the passing window, gets his hand into the passing lane, and forces a turnover.

And here, later in the same quarter, O’Neale cuts off the driving lane and rides Butler’s hip to the rim, contesting vertically and forcing a miss. Butler grabs the offensive rebound, Derrick Favors rotates to protect the rim, Butler whips a pass to a seemingly wide open Precious Achiuwa, who catches the pass and instantly gathers for a shot attempt at the rim ... where he’s greeted by O’Neale, who uses his quick, strong hands to erase the shot attempt before take-off, and Utah recovers the loose ball.

Here, his defense on Brandon Ingram is simply ... well, just watch Ingram bust his ass just to get some breathing room vs our guy:

And against Giannis Antetokounmpo, in just over a minute of game time, O’Neale had this sequence...

O’Neale plays tough defense in the low post, Giannis misses a tough fadeaway drifting to his left, O’Neale grabs the defensive rebound:

O’Neale meets Giannis near half court in transition without over-committing, and his pressure forces a bad pass and turnover:

O’Neale plays physical post defense before the entry pass and draws an offensive foul from a clearly frustrated Giannis:

Superb sequence.

O’Neale is one of the few players in the NBA who will, night in and night out, match up against the opposing teams most prolific offensive threat on the perimeter. He spends most possessions defending #1 and #2 options, and yet he’s still one of the most effective defenders in the NBA.

Behold:

O’Neale’s defensive brilliance, quantified (shout-out to Rudy, a man among boys)

First of all, Rudy Gobert stands alone as the most terrifyingly dominant defender in the NBA, and is this season’s clear-cut Defensive Player of the Year. Second, look at how far to the right O’Neale is on this graph. Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, and James Ennis are the only perimeter players who come close to his defensive matchup difficulty while posting better results. O’Neale’s defensive impact, hustle, and effort are undeniable.

If Gobert is the backbone of this team, O’Neale is the heart.

So that’s half of the “3-and-D” equation. What about the “3”? What about the offensive side of the ball?

O’Neale knows his strengths, he knows his limitations, and he expertly plays his role in Utah’s elite (top-3) offensive attack. He excels in catch-and-shoot situations, takes smart shots, makes quick decisions on the catch, and is a solid passer.

A ridiculous 90% of O’Neale’s three-point field goal attempts this season are of the catch-and-shoot variety. Among the 71 players who take at least 3.7 catch-and-shoot threes per game, O’Neale’s effective field goal percentage (eFG%) of 63.4 ranks 13th.

When he’s not taking catch-and-shoot threes, he’s at the rim. Daryl Morey dreams about O’Neale’s shot chart at night:

perfection.gif

Moreyball just became self aware.

Good shot selection doesn’t happen by accident. O’Neale is decisive with the ball in his hands. When he catches a pass, one of three things will immediately happen: a shot, a pass, or a drive. Per NBA’s tracking data, 80% of O’Neale’s touches last less than 2 seconds.

Most of O’Neale’s possessions (53%) are spot-ups, but he’s also very effective in transition (23.9% of his possessions, 88th percentile).

In transition, O’Neale is in a full-on sprint towards the left corner as Ingles brings the ball up the court. When Ingles heads towards the left wing, O’Neale re-directs into open space and dives toward the rim, forcing Doncic to retreat into the paint. Once the defender commits, O’Neale readjusts again and begins backpedaling to the right corner. He knows before he receives the pass that a defender will be closing out on him, so he instantly flings it to a wide open Conley for three.

On this possession, O’Neale makes life hell for the opposing defense. First, he slides lower into the corner during Bogey’s drive, forcing the defense to stretch and bend to account for his positioning. On the catch, a quick jab step throws the defender off balance, and O’Neale drives baseline into wide open space. When the defense rotates, O’Neale reads it and kicks the ball out to a wide open Mitchell for three. Beautiful.

(By the way, does that confidence after the pass remind you of a certain dominant team in recent memory?)

Here, O’Neale is already moving as he catches the pass and drives into the paint. When the defense collapses, he kicks the ball out to Conley on the wing and keeps moving into the corner. When Murray sticks with Conley on the drive, and Craig closes out on Bogey, O’Neale is left wide open in the corner. Splash.

O’Neale isn’t a volume playmaker or shot creator by any stretch of the imagination, but he does exactly what the Jazz need him to do. He keeps the ball (and the offense) moving. Nobody on Utah’s roster passes the ball more often than O’Neale (52.7 passes per game), and he’s 4th on the team in both assists and secondary assists, behind only Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, and Joe Ingles.

In addition to decisive movement, passing, and shooting, O’Neale’s hustle, timing, and hard work create extra possessions for the Jazz offense.

Here, he outworks three defenders to secure an offensive rebound and give Utah another possession.

O’Neale’s hustle on this possession created two extra scoring chances for the Jazz, and it ended with a Royce putback for 2.

Seriously, go watch that entire Royce O’Neale breakdown. It’s fantastic stuff, and it really highlights how effective he is in his role.

O’Neale has perhaps the least glamorous job in Utah’s system. He’s the 5th option on offense, and a lockdown defender at the point-of-attack. It takes an unselfish, team-first player to fill that 3-and-D role, and O’Neale is perfectly cast here. He does the dirty work that allows his teammates to shine.

And Jazz fans love him for it.

[#TakeNote: the statistics referenced in the above article are accurate as of Tuesday, February 23, prior to tip-off of any games]

Sources: Basketball Reference, Bball Index, Crafted NBA, ESPN, FiveThirtyEight, Jazz Film Room, NBA.com, Nicholas Williams, Tucker and Thorson Basketball